U of T scholars enhancing access to asexuality and aromanticism research

April 6, 2023 by Sharon Aschaiek

Original article posted on the UTM News Room as well as pasted below. 

It is now easier for scholars to study asexuality and aromanticism, thanks to a resource created by two University of Toronto English scholars.

Liza Blake, an associate professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at U of T Mississauga, and Jenna McKellips, a graduate student in English language and literature, have co-created the Asexuality and Aromanticism Bibliography. While other collections of citations and references on these orientations exist, Blake and McKellips say much writing in this area is scattered across the web, which can make research difficult.

“One of the best ways we thought to advance this field of study was to let people save themselves that extra step and just dive right in and find the relevant writing for them,” says Blake, who has taught classes on early modern asexualities, and is co-editing a scholarly collection on this topic.

Launched last September, the bibliography is unique in that it combines references to literature on asexuality, which is defined as having little to no sexual attraction to others, with those on aromanticism, which is defined as not being romantically attracted to others. The project arose through their research process.

“A lot of the work academic work on aromanticism is kind of buried within asexuality resources. So we wanted to make those writings visible without conflating them,” says McKellips, whose research focuses mainly on queer virginities, and more narrowly on asexualities, in the context of medieval drama.

The resource is also innovative for its inclusion of writings by both academics as well as members of the asexuality, or “ace,” community. They say providing scholars with access to materials beyond peer-reviewed journal articles increases opportunities for truly inclusive research.

“The ace community publishes a lot of reflective and theoretical blog posts and Tumblr posts and videos on asexuality as an identity,” Blake says. “We wanted to include these as part of the archive because they are so thoughtful and meaningful.”

The bibliography was developed with the support of U of T’s Critical Digital Humanities Initiative (CDHI), which enables transdisciplinary collaborations that deal with questions of power, social justice and critical theory. The initiative, which is one of U of T’s Institutional Strategic Initiatives, provided McKellips with a Graduate Partner grant to start building the resource. The project was also an example of the type of projects that CDHI’s UX Design for DH Accelerator Program was made for, says CDHI Managing Director Danielle Taschereau Mamers. The accelerator program supports researchers in creating websites, digital exhibitions, databases and other digital projects.

The CDHI Accelerator team, which included Peter Luo, a user-experience design co-op student from the Faculty of Information (iSchool), and CDHI developer Matt Lefaive, worked with McKellips and Blake to identify accessibility issues on their existing site and to make it a more usable resource for both academic and wider audiences. “In addition to implementing new design elements and improving the bibliography’s search functions, Peter tested the new design with an array of users to ensure we were meeting the research team’s goals around accessibility and usability,” notes Taschereau Mamers.

The bibliography currently contains more than 500 references to asexuality and aromanticism writings that are primarily humanities- and theory-based resources, although they plan to add psychological and sociological sources touching on scientific discourses on asexuality that influence theoretical formulations. The resource also includes reading and teaching collections that instructors can use in their courses on asexual or aromantic studies.

To make it easy for researchers to find relevant resources, all of the bibliography’s content is tagged from a list of several dozen relevant topics. They can also filter their searches by publication type, e.g. article, book chapter or dissertation, and by academic or community writing.

“One of our big goals has been to make sure that we are not thinking about categories like race and disability as secondary to asexuality. A lot of the best writing on asexuality is precisely asexuality as an intersectional category,” Blake says. “Thinking about asexuality as a critical category is something that helps us challenge what makes it difficult for asexual people to exist in the world, and how that is impacted by things like race, disability and gender.”